Fairies at La Rochelle?

published april 17, 2024 | written by emily cough | edited by bhhs staff
Up close photo of the tree grove by La Rochelle cottage with sticks, moss, and mysterious fairy glitter...

Who is leaving trails of glitter down the banisters, little footprints by the servants’ wing, and sticks, twigs, and moss findings in the tree grove by the cottage? Have fairies made their way to La Rochelle?

If so, how did they get here?

Photo of the tree grove by La Rochelle cottage

The History of Fairies

Fairies, as we know them today, as diminutive, winged, magical beings, have a long history spanning back to 8th century B.C.E., in some form or another.

First introduced in Homer’s Iliad, the Greek poet wrote: “where round the bed whence Achelous springs, The wat’ry fairies dance in mazy rings” (Homer 1851).

It wouldn’t be until the 12th century when we see references of fairies appear again. Historian Gervase of Tilbury makes mention of Portunes— a precursory term to fairy—describing them as being “about three inches high, tiny men with wrinkled faces who came into houses at night and roasted frogs for their suppers upon the hot embers of the fir” (Briggs 1957). In Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale, in the 14th century, the narrator laments the disappearance of “fayerye(s)” and elves (Chaucer, 1476). During the early modern period in Europe, references of fairies and elves become captured and immortalized in ballads (Taylor 2014).

For a time, written documentation of fairies are far and scarce. It’s not until the 16th century where fairies become more common in literature, with the advent of the printing press. Reginald Scot, with his texts of witchcraft and magic in The Discoverie of Witchcraft, paints the occult in a more favorable light, often referencing fairies in his book. However, this came at a time where witchcraft was heavily scrutinized, and even deemed “damnable,” as James VI of Scotland denounced Scot’s work in a preface to readers in Dæmonologie (James VI of Scotland 1597).Fast forward nearly 100 years later, folklorist Rev. Robert Kirk’s collection of legends and fables are captured between 1691-1692. Missing and pronounced dead at 42 after a midnight stroll on the Doon Hill, it was said that, following his funeral, an apparition of Kirk appeared in front of his cousin Graham of Duchray. In this spectacle, Kirk had relayed to his cousin that he was, in fact, “not dead; I fell down in a swoon, and was carried into Fairy-land, where I now am” but that he would reappear at the baptism of his child. If his cousin throws a knife over Kirk’s head, he “will be released, and restored to human society” (Graham 1812). Unfortunately for Kirk, his cousin had failed the task and it was presumed that Kirk was lost to the fairyland forever more. Speculation of the reason for his abduction came after he had begun to reveal the inner world of fairies in The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns & Fairies: A Study in Folk-lore & Psychical Research, not published until 1815 by Walter Scott (Henderson 2018).

In his collection, Kirk described the fairies as being intelligent and of “light changeable bodies,” able to “appear or disappear at pleasure” (Kirk 1815). Their diet consisted of liquor and corn grain, though some were known to bake bread, as well as being handy, known to strike hammers in their workshops. A type of fairy, Brownies, were known to be helpful creatures, entering the homes of humans and cleaning their kitchens and all the vessels within. Their societies were much like ours, as Kirk describes, dividing themselves into tribes and orders; they lived in houses, had children, marriages, nurses, as well as death and burial practices.

However, some fairies weren’t all that altruistic, as they would steal regularly from humans, “preying on the Grain, as do Crowes and Mice” (Kirk 1815). Yet, Kirk wrote the fairies in a way to “‘suppress the impudent and growing atheisme of this age’,” and to “uphold the belief in the existence of angels, the Devil, the Holy Spirit and, ultimately, of God” (Henderson 2018).

Supposed second and thirdhand accounts of run-ins with fairies come from English antiquary John Aubrey who recorded the letters of correspondents writing to him of these mysterious creatures. In one particular letter, Ambrose Browne pens to Aubrey that a “Shepherd said that (the Ground opened) he was brought into strange places underground that used musical instruments, viz. violls and lutes (such as were then played)” (Briggs 1957).

More accounts of fairies come a few years later in John Beaumont’s 1705 An Historical, Physiological and Theological Treatise of Spirits, Apparitions, Witchcrafts, and Other Magical Practices: Containing an Account of the Genii or Familiar Spirits, Both Good and Bad, That Are Said to Attend Men in This Life; And What Sensible Perceptions Some Persons Have Had of Them. In his book he writes of fairies coming to him, one in which rang a bell in his ear and told him its name, “Ariel” (Beaumont and Taylor 1705). Later, he notes that two fairies came to him. Materializing as a boy and a girl, they wore “[Womens’ Habits], them being of Brown Complexion and about Three Foot in Stature” (Beaumont and Taylor 1705).

Not all fairies were alike of course. In the 13th century, Thomas of Cantimpré divided the “Hornet demons,” what we know as fairies, “into four classes: neptuni, who swim in water; incubi, who roam the earth; dusii, who live under the earth; and spiritualia nequitie in celestibus, who inhabit the air” (Green 2016). In the 16th century, John Walsh of Devonshire gave three “’kindes of Feries, white, greene, and blacke . . . Wherof (he sayth) the blacke Feries be the woorst’” (Green 2016). In some cultures, the classification of fairies were divided into good versus evil; in others, whether they were helpful to humans or not. Though modern interpretations of fairies have a higher count; brownies, pixies, banshees, leprechauns, elves, kobolds, changelings, dryads, and gnomes are just a few types of fairies that have been reported to exist, each with their own characteristics, personalities, and appearances.

The Fairy Hoax

In 1917, cousins nine-year-old Frances Griffiths and sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright were able to convince the whole world that fairies had been spotted in Cottingley, Bradley, England.

Despite being in the throws of the First World War, the small pocket of Cottingley was seemingly untouched by the dread of war in the summer of 1917— at least for the two young cousins.

After a stay in South Africa, Frances and her mother returned to England and stayed with Polly, Arthur Wright, and their daughter, Elsie. Together, the two girls spent their days exploring and sharing adventures.

Cottingley Beck, a stream that ran through the Wright’s backyard, became a frequently visited spot for the girls. Returning wet every day from their escapades, they were scolded incessantly. But they weren’t being naughty, they insisted, they only went out there “’to see the fairies’” (Bibby 2023).

Of course, what business would adults have in believing the creative, spirited minds of children? Set out to prove them wrong, Elsie borrowed her father’s Midg quarterplate camera to capture proof of existence.

Old photo of Frances Griffiths surrounded by fairies
Frances Griffiths with fairies

Elise’s father was unconvinced when he saw the photographs, believing the girls had doctored them somehow. Her mother, on the other hand, believed them wholeheartedly. Enough so that she shared them with a “Theosophical Society in nearby Bradford,” of which she was interested in the movement (Bibby 2023).

The captured proof of supposed fairies soon quickly took believers and the world by storm, especially after being vindicated by photographic expert Harold Snelling and then appearing in a spiritualist magazine. In particular, the photographs captured the attention of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, the famed author of the Sherlock Holmes series.

Old photograph of Elsie Wright looking to the right at a "fairy"
Elsie Wright with fairy

It wouldn’t be proven until 1983 that the Cottingley Fairies were, in fact, a hoax. Elsie finally admitted that though the photographs weren’t doctored, they did use “beautifully drawn images of fairies…copied from images in Princess Mary’s Gift Book, published in 1914, and then had wings added to them [and held] upright with hatpins” (Bibby 2023).

Though the Cottingley Fairies weren’t real, that’s not to say the La Rochelle fairies aren’t…How else can we explain all the mysterious happenings going on here? We haven’t been able to catch a glimpse of them, but they are leaving traces! It’s only a matter of time before we do…

References

Beaumont, John, and John Taylor. 1705. An Historical, Physiological and Theological Treatise of Spirits, Apparitions, Witchcrafts, and Other Magical Practices: Containing an Account of the Genii Or Familiar Spirits, Both Good and Bad, that are Said to Attend Men in this Life, and what Sensible Perceptions Some Persons Have Had of Them.

Bibby, Miriam. 2023. “The Cottingley Fairies – Historic UK.” Historic UK. November 26, 2023. https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-Fairies-of-Cottingley/.

Briggs, K. M. “The English Fairies.” Folklore 68, no. 1 (1957): 270–87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1258158.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. 1476. Canterbury Tales: The Prologue.

Graham, Patrick. 1812. Sketches of Perthshire.

Green, Richard Firth. 2016. Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Henderson, Lizanne. 2018. “The (Super)Natural Worlds of Robert Kirk: Fairies, Beasts, Landscapes and Lychnobious Liminalities.” The Bottle Imp. February 20, 2018. https://www.thebottleimp.org.uk/2016/12/the-supernatural-worlds-of-robert-kirk-fairies-beasts-landscapes-and-lychnobious-liminalities/#easy-footnote-bottom-2-1085.

Homer. 1851. The Iliad.

Kirk, Robert. 1893. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns & Fairies: A Study in Folk-lore & Psychical Research.

James VI of Scotland. 1597. Daemonologie. Edinburgh.

Taylor, Lynda. 2014. “The Cultural Significance of Elves in Northern European Balladry.” http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/8759/1/Supernatural Ballads changes accepted FIXED.pdf.